Gender discrimination, law and the fight for tenure at DePaul University
By Rachael Liberman
Academia has never been immune to charges of elitism, sexism, or racism. From the use of socially questionable theories as “objective truth” to the absorption of meritocracy, academia does not necessarily evoke thoughts of “fairness” or “transparency.” As a doctoral student myself, I have encountered inconsistencies and political posturing within the “ivory tower.” Unfortunately, however, I have to play by the rules of the field, as Bourdieu would say, in order to successfully claim a position in academia. Sustainability in this field, however, is another story. As a woman, I have become familiar with statistics on the number of female professors with tenure – as well as the pay gap – at my university. It’s hard to digest. However, a group of women at DePaul University (Chicago) seem to be questioning the notion of academic capital, to use Bourdieu again, and are actually suing the university for not receiving tenure. Their grounds? Gender discrimination.
According to Denise Mattson, DePaul University’s vice president for public relations, the university does not condone gender discrimination. She is quoted in a Chicago Tribune article as stating: “Every faculty member seeking tenure is held to the same standards: scholarship, service and teaching.” However, Lynne Bernabei, the attorney of the four women who are suing DePaul, feels that the potential for bias is built into the system, pointing to the final academic board, which is comprised of members outside of the applicant’s discipline. In the same Chicago Tribune article, she states: “How does, say, a physics professor decide who is more deserving of tenure, someone in English or maybe engineering? When there is no objective criteria, there’s a tendency to fall back on stereotypes.”
This specific story has been framed, in the media, by the experience of Melissa Bradshaw, a professor of women’s and gender studies. Since her initial tenure rejection in May, through her appeal over the summer, to the final verdict on November 1st, students and faculty members have been demonstrating and picketing in support of Bradshaw. At a recent student protest, allegations of anti-gay sentiments have been attached to her tenure rejection. Bradshaw is a founder of DePaul’s minor in the Lesbian/Gay/Bi/Transgender/Queer Studies program. DePaul, however, is a Catholic university – which makes the existence of this program inherently problematic due to competing ideologies. Interestingly, Bradshaw reports that she was questioned by the tenure board regarding the number of male students in her classroom. She notes: “You wouldn’t ask that of a male professor.”
It appears that this scenario can be critically unpacked by using Bourdieu’s theory of power and practice. Due to the fact that the tenure appointment processes is both objective and subjective, academic capital is used as guiding principles for those holding positions that influence academic reproduction. According to these female faculty members, it appears that DePaul University has constructed a notion of symbolic capital, which influences academic capital, that has a questionable stance towards women. Off the 33 faculty members up for tenure this year, seven were turned down – and five of them were women. According to the Chicago Tribune, of the 18 male professors up for tenure, 16 got in. Hopefully the court proceedings will end positively for these female faculty members, but in the end, the fact that this decision has been challenged at all can serve as a model for current and future female members of the academy.